TCS Daily

Centers for Development Control

By Dave Shiflett - January 14, 2002 12:00 AM

In a development watched closely by those of us who live beyond the city limits, doctors and researchers from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued a report insisting suburban living is hazardous to your health.

This comes as something of a surprise because the CDC not long ago issued a report saying suburbanites are the healthiest people in the nation. As a suburb dweller, I have a great deal at stake here; so I went looking for clues as to where the Truth may actually lie. Perhaps to no surprise, it quickly became clear that one of the study's critics may be correct: This report doesn't even qualify as junk science. It's merely junk.

First off, the report was funded by a group called Sprawlwatch. Now, as the name suggests, Sprawlwatch is not neutral on the question of suburban living. Far from it. Anti-sprawl activists have many criticisms of that arrangement: People live in stand-alone homes surrounded by yards, trees, and SUV-driving Republicans. Anti-sprawl types prefer it when people live in large apartment boxes full of strangers, ride buses or subways, and adhere to a literal reading of The New York Times.

One author of this report -- Richard Jackson, identified as the CDC's top "environmental health expert" -- said the report was a result of responsible people funding a paper long overdue. More to the point, he asserted, we ignore sprawl "at our peril." Among other complaints, suburbanites are said to depend far too heavily on cars instead of bicycles and walking. By contrast, he cited yet another study showing that the average Washingtonian walks 10,000 steps a day. "You cannot do that living in a place like Orange County."

I can't speak for Orange County, which may indeed have a law against walking 10,000 steps or more per day. After all, as some of us have pointed out, once localities began outlawing public smoking we were on a very slippery slope. But I have lived in Washington and I seriously question the notion that the average Washingtonian takes 10,000 steps a day, which after all would be close to a couple of miles. For one thing, Washington's fat cats didn't get that way by accident. The city's vast population of bureaucrats mostly drive to work, ride elevators to their offices, and thereafter prop their feet on their desks till closing.

Mr. Jackson raises further suspicions by complaining that the CDC's earlier report -- the one stating that suburbanites are the healthiest Americans -- was, in the words of the Los Angeles Times, "skewed by the many affluent people in the suburbs with access to top health insurance, gym memberships and homes near bike trail networks." Which is to say, skewed by the type of people who live in the suburbs -- and who are the proper subject of such a study. One senses a bit of class warfare may be underway, which perhaps explains the supposed cure for this offense against health: "high-density developments with a mix of homes, stores and office space that allow for fully integrated, racially and economically diverse walkable communities."

Mr. Jackson humbly admits that his report "is not yet a smoking gun. It is a policy piece. We're putting forward hypotheses and thinking about how these things contribute to the public health." He also does some Oprah-jabber: "We are designing environments that actually restrict people's options. We need to be offering people options to take charge of their health." In other words, this is supposedly about "empowerment."

Yet it is fairly clear that anti-suburban attacks are designed to pack larger numbers of people into smaller spaces and, indeed, greatly reduce suburban living as an option. Some anti-sprawl types take their arguments to extremes. The other day I read an article arguing that that non-density housing is perfect for wife-beaters and child abusers because their victims' screams cannot be heard by neighbors.

As mentioned above, one critic of this new report denounces it as mere junk, but the fact is these types of "studies" have a more serious aim. By saying that suburban living is not simply a lifestyle choice but is injurious to health, activists bring to mind the mantra that gun deaths represent a "disease" -- indeed an epidemic. According to this analysis, opposing the proffered "cure" is morally indefensible, for after all we are talking about combating "disease." And so modulating human behavior is less a political concern -- reached through consent and constitutional process -- than an endeavor of medical "science."

Out here in the suburbs, we're watching these developments very closely. We have our many faults, but we can smell BS a country mile away.

The writer is an author living in Virginia.

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